Meet Judge Juan Merchan, a Colombian immigrant who's presiding in Trump's arraignment; not guilty plea is entered

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AP Trump indictment April 2023 1_800px

Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his arraignment April 4 in New York. Trump surrendered to authorities ahead of his arraignment on criminal charges stemming from a hush-money payment to an adult film actress during his 2016 presidential campaign. Photo by Andrew Kelly/The Associated Press.

Updated: The New York judge who is presiding Tuesday over the arraignment of former President Donald Trump, Judge Juan Merchan, is a Colombian immigrant who came to the United States with his family at age 6.

Trump entered a not guilty plea to 34 felony charges before Merchan on Tuesday, report the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Merchan began working when he was 9 years old and continued working even in college, footing his educational costs, the New York Times reports. His first job was carrying groceries for tips. He also washed dishes at a diner, delivered kosher meat and, during college, was a night manager at a hotel.

He dropped out of Baruch College to work as an auditor at a real estate firm. He went back to college, received a business degree in 1990 and got his JD in 1994 at the Hofstra University School of Law, Law.com reports. He has said he was the first person in his family to go to college.

Merchan, 60, “grew up poor” in Queens, New York City, according to the New York Times.

AP Trump order Judge Juan Manuel Merchan_800px A detail of a copy of an order by Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over former President Donald Trump’s hush-money case, is on display March 31. Photo by Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press.

Before becoming a judge, Merchan was a prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York City and a lawyer overseeing civil cases with the New York attorney general’s office. He was appointed to the Bronx Family Court in 2006 and moved in 2009 to the New York Supreme Court, which is a trial-level court, where he handles felony criminal trials as an acting justice. He also presides in mental health and veterans courts.

“He’s a meticulous thinker, he’s deliberate, and he’s smart,” one of Merchan’s former supervisors in the district attorney’s office told Law.com. “When he makes a decision, he’s comfortable and stands by it. By all accounts, he runs a pretty good courtroom. I know the lawyers who appear before him generally are very satisfied with his fairness. I think he’s one of the better judges in the building.”

Lawyer and retired Judge Barry Kamins told Law.com that any judge presiding in the Trump case would experience intense pressure.

“Judge Merchan, who exhibits excellent temperament and a solid knowledge of the law, will not allow the circus-like atmosphere outside the courtroom to affect the proceedings in court,” Kamins said.

Several people who spoke with the New York Times said Merchan had a strong work ethic.

“He is someone who reads every word on every page of every filing and every footnote—and then the cases that you cite to him,” said Jose A. Fanjul, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, who prosecuted a case before Merchan. “His fidelity to the law and to getting it right lends to him this sort of moral purpose of what he’s doing that makes it a joy to practice in front of him.”

Merchan got Trump’s case because it was his turn to oversee grand juries and the cases that they produce, the Associated Press reports. He also handles financial cases—and that included the trial of the Trump Organization.

AP Trump indictment April 2023 2_800px Former President Donald Trump is seen arriving April 4 at the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges related to a hush-money payment to an adult film actress during his 2016 presidential campaign. Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA the Associated Press.

In that case, Manhattan jurors convicted the Trump Organization of tax fraud. The company’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was a witness after pleading guilty to 15 felonies for failing to report $1.76 million in income.

Trump mentioned the prior cases when he criticized Merchan on Truth Social, his social media platform. Merchan “is the same person who ‘railroaded’ my 75 year old former CFO, Allen Weisselberg, to take a ‘plea’ deal,” Trump wrote. “He strong armed Allen, which a judge is not allowed to do, & treated my companies, which didn’t ‘plead,’ VICIOUSLY. APPEALING!”

But the lawyer who represented Weisselberg in his plea, Nicholas Gravante, had good things to say about Merchan in an email to CNN.

“Judge Merchan was efficient, practical and listened carefully to what I had to say,” Gravante said in the email. “He was clear in signaling his judicial inclinations, which helped me tremendously in giving Mr. Weisselberg informed legal advice. Judge Merchan was always well prepared, accessible and—most importantly in the Weisselberg matter—a man of his word. He treated me and my colleagues with the utmost respect, both in open court and behind closed doors.”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “What will the grand jury indictment mean for Trump?”

ABAJournal.com: “Meet Joseph Tacopina, the outspoken lawyer defending Trump in ‘political prosecution’”

ABAJournal.com: “Experts see these problems with felony-records case against Trump over hush-money payments”

ABAJournal.com: “Cadwalader partner reportedly resigns to lead Trump’s representation in Manhattan DA’s criminal case”

Updated April 4 at 2:05 p.m. to report on former President Donald Trump’s not guilty plea.

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